U.N. Torture Expert 'Outraged' by WikiLeaks Founder Assange's Extradition Case: 'What About the War Crimes?'

A United Nations torture expert says he has been left "genuinely outraged" by the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as speakers at an event at London's Frontline Cub this week warned the case should be considered an "attack on all journalists."

Assange, 48, has been incarcerated inside H.M. Prison Belmarsh since last April, when he was detained after seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy under political asylum. He is facing up to 175 years in U.S. prison in relation to charges filed under the Espionage Act.

At the Frontline Club on Tuesday, he attracted a largely sympathetic crowd, especially after a former British intelligence chief withdrew at the last minute.

The talk—which took place under the Chatham House Rule—promised a "sober" discussion of the legal case without resorting to political mud-slinging or conspiracy theory. Is that even possible?

And while it wasn't always balanced, it never quite descended into a full-on WikiLeaks fan-club.

There was little talk of Russian hackers, deceased Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffers or suspicious backchannels with right-wing figureheads in this packed-out room.

But there was broad agreement on the panel, which included veteran journalist Peter Oborne, charismatic lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and Professor Nils Melzer, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

"The judiciary in this country, unfortunately in this case, has proven either unwilling or unable to guarantee due process," Prof. Melzer said, claiming Assange appeared to have symptoms that were consistent with psychological torture. "I think this case is in the hands of the public."

The discussion became laser-focused on the glory years: The "Collateral Murder" video that made global headlines, the release of military war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the large cache of diplomatic cables and the trove of documents about Guantanamo Bay detainees.

It was hardly a surprise. After all, that's the 2010-2011 era of WikiLeaks the U.S. decided to reference in its 18-count superseding indictment accusing Assange of being complicit in "one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States."

Ramped up on chaotic energy and with a sense of unpredictability, WikiLeaks was a different beast in those days. Now, with Assange and his one-time source Chelsea Manning both in jail, there is a different, more defensive, atmosphere surrounding the leaking organization.

Manning was convicted of espionage charges and sentenced to 35 years in a military prison in August 2013, but was granted clemency by President Barack Obama in January 2017. She was sent back to jail last year after refusing to testify before a grand jury in the WikiLeaks case.

The prosecution of Assange—sentenced to 50 weeks last May for allegedly skipping bail in 2012—led to a strong rebuke by one panelist at the Frontline, who slammed the attitude of the press, suggesting some outlets had "actually ganged up here with the state against freedom."

"I fully accept the need for state secrets," the speaker elaborated. "I am quite old-fashioned in that way. The issue here is that if you are going to put somebody in jail for the rest of his life or put him in jail at all for publishing diplomatic cables... that is an attack on all journalists."

The U.S. justice department has accused Assange of conspiring with Manning to obtain secret documents, and says the leaks included 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, and 250,000 U.S. Department of State cables. It didn't deny the files were all accurate.

"Assange's actions risked serious harm to United States national security to the benefit of our adversaries and put the unredacted named human sources at a grave and imminent risk of serious physical harm and/or arbitrary detention," the DoJ media release read.

Melzer, who agreed to be quoted, referenced alleged military abuses in those files, including the famous video showing the killing of two Reuters journalists, and was clearly one of WikiLeaks' most staunch advocates on the small stage. "What about the war crimes?" he said.

Julian Assange
Supporters of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gather to show their solidarity ahead of his expected appearance by video-link at the City of Westminster Magistrates Court on June 14, 2019 in London, England. Leon Neal/Getty

"We are living in a time when our own war crimes are no longer prosecuted," he said.

"175 years for whatever they are accusing Mr. Assange of, it's certainly not violence, certainly it's not genocide, certainly it's not massacring civilians or torturing anybody, and people for genocide in the Hague they receive 35 or 45 years. I'm genuinely outraged."

"Whatever we may accuse Mr. Assange of he has a right to defend himself, but his lawyers keep complaining of not having enough access to him. Nothing is being done to remedy that," Melzer added.

Melzer is also the Human Rights Chair of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and a Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow. He said he was not initially going to take up the case and feared being manipulated, but became alarmed at its political handling.

Speaking from the audience, a representative from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said the question of "is Assange a journalist" remains irrelevant.

He said: "What we need to focus on is the monstrousness of the unprecedented legal devices being used against him. The use of those will place a chilling effect on journalism.

"If we don't make a stand on this occasion, if we don't point out just how monstrous this behavior is then it really will put a dampener on journalism not just in this country but around the world."

The argument has been made before. If the U.S. government goes after WikiLeaks for handling state secrets, what's stopping it from eventually going after The New York Times? For its part, the U.S. has its own stance on the matter, and it will be unwelcome news for supporters.

"Julian Assange is no journalist," the Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John C. Demers, said in a statement last May. "This made plain by the totality of his conduct as alleged in the indictment—i.e., his conspiring with and assisting a security clearance holder to acquire classified information, and his publishing the names of human sources."

WikiLeaks representative Joseph Farrell denied the organization releases any information without considering redaction and some well-known examples were the fault of others.

"One in six documents was held back from the Afghan publications," Farrell claimed. He said that WikiLeaks spent nine months redacting the release of diplomatic cables and were forced to publish them early after a journalist revealed a password that was protecting the cache.

There were no known representatives from the British or American governments in attendance at the Frontline Club this week. At times, that balance would have been welcome, as one panelist repeatedly indicated. Event organizers suggested that Chatham House—where the event was initially supposed to take place—had "got cold feet" due to the touchy subject matter.

A Chatham House spokesperson told Newsweek it was due to breach of contract.

A statement read: "As with all external bookings the contract clearly stipulated that there must be no implication that this is a Chatham House event or that it is endorsed by us.

"Discrepancies between what they forwarded to us purporting to be their invitations and the invitations actually being used led us regretfully to cancel the booking for breach of contract. This was a contractual decision and not made on the basis of the subject matter."

For now, extradition looms. WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, 57, said after an appearance at Westminster Magistrates' Court last month the hearings would last longer than expected.

"We have learned...they do not consider foreign nationals to have first amendment protection," he said. "Let that sink in for a second. At the same time the U.S. government is chasing journalists all over the world, they claim they have extraterritorial reach. They have decided that all foreign journalists have no protection... this is not about Julian Assange. It's about press freedom."

The Assange extradition hearing starts February 24 at London's Woolwich Crown Court. It will last for about a week and take a short break, picking up again on May 18 for another three weeks.

The Home Office previously rejected claims from the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) that Assange's prison sentence is a violation of his human rights.

"The U.K. has a close working relationship with U.N. bodies and is committed to upholding the rule of law," the government said. "Sentencing is a matter for our independent judges, who take into account the full facts of each case. The law provides those convicted with a right of appeal."

Then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid signed the U.S. extradition request in June 2019, saying that he wanted to "see justice done at all times," the BBC reported at the time.

"I think if you leave it in the hands of the judiciary [extradition is] inevitable," Melzer told Newsweek after the talk. "I have to say though that in the U.K., I have a small residual hope that at the High Court level the judges are so concerned with the implications for their reputation that this could have, that perhaps there could be a decision against it. But I think it's very unlikely."

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court in a security van after being sentenced on May 1, 2019 in London, England. Jack Taylor/Getty